Seattle closes NHRA's grueling western swing

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series regulars continue their difficult Western Swing.

Seattle closes NHRA's grueling western swing

This three-races-in-three-weekends march goes from the heights of Denver to semi-coastal Sonoma to Seattle this weekend, with the 30th annual NHRA Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Wash. It’ll be the Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock clans on the dragstrip this weekend; Pro Stock Motorcycle has the weekend off.

Last year’s Northwest Nationals didn’t reach completion until the following race in Brainerd, Minn. Rain forced the event to be postponed, and by the close of competition it was two 2016 champions, Antron Brown and Ron Capps earning a double-up win for Don Schumacher Racing, while journeyman Aaron Strong was the unlikely - and exciting - victor in Pro Stock.

At this time the entry list shows 16-car fields in both Top Fuel and Funny Car nitro categories, which means everyone starts on Sunday, but only 13 Pro Stock cars on the grounds. The latter class is strong, however, with a single part-timer in the group, Steve Graham, who was on-hand for last weekend’s race in northern California. There are two Dodge Dart entries (Allen Johnson and Alan Prusiensky), with the Chevrolet Camaro racecar making up the balance of the field.

On the Top Fuel side, Brown is definitely looking to end this Western Swing in the Pacific Northwest the way in the he started it: in the winner’s circle, like in Denver. The three-time champion has been consistent throughout the season in his DSR dragster, tuned by Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald. Still, Brown, like 14 other Top Fuel competitors are all chasing the Capco/Torrence Racing rail of Steve Torrence, who is having an incredible season, having racked up six victories in 15 races.

The Texan, tuned by Richard Hogan and Bobby Lagana Jr, also enjoys the expertise of Alan Johnson, whose Alan Johnson Performance Engineering engine products are used by many in the nitro ranks, as well as Lucas Oil Sportsmen racers. Torrence ran Brown in the finals last week, winning 3.784/329.42 in what has been “a dream season.” For his competition, that dream can’t end soon enough.

Those chasing Torrence include triple race winner Brown, Leah Pritchett (3 wins) and one-race winner Tony Schumacher, all of whom have qualified for the six-race Countdown to the Championship that begins at zMax Dragway outside Charlotte and who drive for Don Schumacher Racing. Fifth is single race winner Brittany Force, consistent Doug Kalitta, first-time winner Clay Millican, Terry McMillen, Scott Palmer and rookie Troy Coughlin Jr.

In Funny Car, Sonoma was initially a record-breaker when John Force Racing’s president Robert Hight broke the national record for the class in his Friday evening pass on the 1,000-foot dragstrip at 3.807 at an amazing speed of 339.87. But that was qualifying; in the race it was record-breaking time for J.R. Todd, who won the Sonoma race last year in a Kalitta Motorsports Top Fuel dragster. This year he won for the same team - albeit in the DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car. Todd became the second driver to win the same event in two different categories; that distinction formerly belonged solely to the legendary Don Prudhomme.

His win in Sonoma kept Todd in the top 10 as the series heads into the final three races of its “regular” season, which culminates with the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway over the long, Labor Day weekend. Todd chases reigning, first-time champ Ron Capps (6 wins), Matt Hagan with three wins and Jack Beckman, who has earned two Wally trophies, all from Don Schumacher Racing. Hight is fourth and he, like the trio ahead of him has qualified for the Countdown. Tommy Johnson Jr. (1) holds fifth place points, Courtney Force (still looking for her first victory of 2017), John Force (1), Sonoma runner-up Tim Wilkerson and Cruz Pedregon retain top 10 status.

If there’s a semi-dark horse in Funny Car this weekend, it’s Wilkerson. This is Wilk weather, when it gets hot out and when the series heads for Seattle. For three straight years, 2009-2011, nobody could catch this guy’s Shelby Mustang. After killing every chassis he had on the truck during Denver’s festival of wheel stands, the Illinois racer had a brand new McKinney chassis delivered to be built up at the racetrack in Sonoma, where he scrabbled from eighth to the finals. There’s strength to this team with Richard Hartman a second set of ears, eyes for owner/tuner/driver Wilkerson.

There are two drivers that have won three races in Pro Stock: points leader Bo Butner and rookie Tanner Gray, who holds third-place points. Four-time champ Greg Anderson (2) is second while his teammate and reigning titleholder Jason Line (1) lies fourth and has made the Countdown. The balance of the top 10 are five-time champ Jeg Coughlin, Drew Skillman (2), Erica Enders(1), Vincent Nobile, Chris McGaha (1) and Allen Johnson.

With fewer cars on the grounds, that does mean teams and drivers that need to move forward can, and should try to come off the truck with a reasonable baseline. Jen Coughlin is still looking for his first win of the season, after his, and teammate Erica Enders’ Elite Motorsport team returned to the Chevrolet power with which they won their 2014-15 championships. Coughlin believes his team “finally shifted our gears last weekend in Sonoma, and I think we’re back on the right track.”

The big story this weekend will be weather, as it seems to always be in the Seattle area. But rather than expecting moisture, which is normally the case for the Pacific Northwest, the drag racers will have to deal with exceptionally high temperatures in the 90-degree range throughout the race meeting. These are record highs for the area and include added humidity, which should cancel out the hopes of many for more record runs. With Pacific Raceways’ elevation at just 280 feet, it should be a challenge for the tuners and crew chiefs to get cars acclimated to the heat of each day.

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